This Bag Is Too Heavy An advance copy of the Washington Post's reorganization plan

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Photographs by Darrow Montgomery

The Washington Post has a proud history of internal debate. Propose any kind of change to the 131-year-old institution, and watch the newsroom’s committees, task forces, and gossips chew on it. Every benefit and every conceivable pitfall must face the scrutiny of some of the best minds in the business.

Post history furnishes plenty of cases in point. Careful deliberation swallowed a proposal to install a Wall Street Journal–style news digest on the front page of the Post. It survived for a decade on meeting agendas. More than a few discursive conversations have addressed the timeless notion of consolidating the paper’s movie reviews, which are split between the Style and Weekend sections. And for how long has the newsroom been churning speculation on a merger of print and online operations?

Corporate strategy is the latest initiative to board the Post’s slow train. From its news desks to its leadership and digital operation, the newspaper is organized pretty much the same way it was when 28.8K baud modems ruled the world. In June, top executives visited Harvard Business School to begin contemplating the jargon and mentality of mission overhaul. The leadership conferred throughout the summer and fall with a committee of more than 30 Posties, with the goal of producing an agreed-upon strategy in October.

Way too ambitious: When the committee reviewed the plan, it balked, citing the need for more details, more marching orders. We’ll have a better plan by December, came the response.

If you buy that line, well, I’ll be happy to sell you some remnant space on my Web site. The Post isn’t going to rewrite an entire corporate strategic plan—not right in the middle of the holiday season.

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While the paper’s top people fiddle with their strategy memo, the industry and the economy are tanking like never before. It would be best to have the new strategy in place before the Dow dips under 5,000.

So Washington City Paper, forever a friend to local media institutions, is hereby stepping in and taking charge. We’ve taken the time to interview key media strategists, examine the Post’s assets, and knit together a strategic plan for the ages. It’s all written up in corporatese, sans copyright, so the Post can just cut, paste, send to ALL, and gauge the reaction on FishBowlDC. It’s even in memo format, and it comes with “off the record” boxes that will help Post employees sort through the mumbo-jumbo.

MEMORANDUM

FROM: Katharine Weymouth, Marcus Brauchli, Stephen Hills
RE: New Corporate Strategy

The Washington Post has reached a critical point in its evolution. For decades, the paper has achieved great things, both as a producer of journalism and as a business. When Len Downie recently retired as our executive editor, we celebrated the 25 Pulitzer Prizes that the paper won during his 17 years of leadership. For most of that time, the great journalism has come concurrently with the paper’s healthy bottom line. Generous profit margins, stable circulation, strong advertising sales—all of these were mainstays of the Washington Post Co.’s annual report for years.

That rosy picture, of course, has darkened. We will not belabor here the business climate that has buffeted the Post, as well as the entire newspaper industry—you are all too well aware of what has happened in recent years.

The Washington Post Co. has attempted to meet the challenging financial environment in a way that enables us to continue producing top-notch journalism. Though we have undergone three rounds of early-retirement offers this decade, the packages have been funded from our pension fund, not from the newsroom budget. We have taken other measures—including a companywide attempt to crack down on needless expenses—to protect our core reporting mission from the cyclical and secular trends in the information business.

Our collective efforts to date, however, will not properly position the Washington Post to take on the challenges of the 21st century. Our print and online operations still operate from separate offices; our downtown newsroom is still organized for the pre-digital world; and many of our journalistic products overlap with one another.

The stark reality for all of us is that the Washington Post has to change, as the following paper discusses.

The Big Picture

The Washington Post Co. is proud of the dialogue on corporate strategy that our employees have maintained in recent months. The discussion has been rich with innovative thinking and driven by a sincere desire to help the Washington Post—and, indeed, the entire news business—find a profitable model that accommodates our commitment to great journalism.

Along these lines, a few different schools of thought have emerged.

Focused Coverage: A lot of newsroom talk has centered on identifying the Washington Post’s core competencies, with the leading candidates being the federal government and the Washington metropolitan area. Under this model, the paper would concentrate staff around these two areas and would cut costs by reducing beats that lie outside of them, such as travel (outside of the region) and national coverage of topics such as books, entertainment, health, and the like.

Exclusive Coverage: A close cousin of the above approach, this strategy would evaluate everything the Post does from the standpoint of exclusivity. If the Post is providing information that can be accessed easily from other sources, we should consider dropping it from our offerings. Deborah Howell, our beloved ombudsman, delivered a vote for this approach in a recent column, writing that all such content is “fair game” for trimming.

New Corporate Structure: Various outside-of-the-box proposals would turn the news operation into a foundation with the mission of reporting the news and producing enterprise journalism or perhaps some kind of endowed trust with the same mission.

The leadership of the Washington Post Co. is wary of adopting any one of these three strategies, or any other attempt at reinventing the newspaper. Industry leaders have spent years trying to figure out this puzzle, with unimpressive results. Any attempt to revolutionize our business offers as much risk of discarding our assets as promise of saving the franchise.

Our strategy for the future could best be termed a nonstrategy. We will continue to cut expenses in the hope that we can squeak through these trying times. We will indeed reconfigure the Washington Post, though not in conformity with the latest management theory. Rather, we will make adjustments based on what we do well and what we don’t do well.

Our Readers Say

I am glad to see I am not the only one who has noticed the decline in writing standards in recent months. I've written to Free for All on misusing "palette" instead of palate, for one, and noticed a dismaying number of other Free for All letters on egregious copy errors. I most recently wrote to the Ombudsman when, in one small article, the writer used "loosing" instead of "losing" and "since" when the right word was "sense"!

Let's not even get into the explosion in misuse of the adverb "importantly" when an adjective (important) is correct.

I have two comments:
First, how on Earth do people get jobs as reporters for the Post if they have to depend on copy editors to catch all their poor writing? One would think there should be a minimum standards for grammar and spelling. Apparently, the Post thinks that it is a "minimal" standard.

Second, I propose that to get the Post's attention, they of the Pulitzer-Prize mongering, that forthwith, the Prize Committee amend the rules thusly:

"We will read the entire newspaper edition in which each of your entries appears. If there are more than three (or another suitable low number) grammar or spelling errors, your entry will no longer be considered for a prize."

The sound of windmills tilting....
To understand what the problem is at the Post, let's think about a newspaper that almost everyone agrees is excellent on every front: the New York Times. Its readership numbers and journalistic reputation are not a problem. I don't know if the NYT's advertising revenues are down--but since the Times has, like the Post, been in the red forever, that must be the case.

What this says to me is that the days when newspapers could survive on ad revenue are over. If they can't sell ads in a paper everyone reads, then where *can* they sell them? Thus the obvious corollary: They need to charge for content. Yet every article on the NYT is available for free online. They used to charge for this privilege, and I'm not sure why they stopped.

The Post, unfortunately, is all over the place in terms of its quality--as this WCP article adroitly pointed out. Occasionally there is a standout cover story of national scope--but they're few and far between. For me, the only must-read sections are the Sunday Outlook and the Metro sections. The Post Metro section is the only source for erudite, well-researched daily local coverage; the Sun-Gazette and the Connection papers just ain't cutting it, and the City Paper isn't a daily.

And yet I'm a Sundays-only Post subscriber. Why is that?

It's astounding that the newspaper industry has not even considered it:

Most people hate the format newspapers come in. Why don't I get the weekday Post? Because it piles up! It's a mess! Who wants to collect these inexorably spreading piles of newsprint that somehow multiply across the floor during the week, like coathangers in the closet? Who wants to gather them into a pile and lug them to the recycling bin every week?

Newspapers could make the pages smaller, bind them, and make a magazine--but that would cost too much to be profitable. And besides, we all know print is dying.

So what the Post should do is focus on Metro coverage and the Opinion section, leaving national and international affairs to the NY Times and everything else (like food, arts, hats, shoes, and the other fluff) to niche magazines. Then they should put everything online and charge for it. They would essentially become a really good local, daily newspaper.

Incidentally, I'm shocked that washingtonpost.com does not offer the identical content that's in the print edition, as the NYT site does. Why on earth should the online content be different? That's just asinine.

The reason that this was news to me is that the Post site requires registering first and giving all sorts of personal info. I can read a better version of a national story instantly by going to the NYT site--and that's what I do. Maybe I'm missing out on the local coverage in the weekday Metro sections, but I'll live. The local TV news is pretty stupid, but at least I don't have to register.

So that's it, Post: Become the go-to online newspaper for daily Washington regional coverage--and then start charging us for reading it.
I do most of my news reading online, for obvious reasons, but also because I can't stand the amount of paper wasted by print editions. I have four news sources in my Firefox bookmarks toolbar: AlterNet.org, The New York Times, WashingtonPost.com, and Philly.com (I'm a Philly sports fan).

WashingtonPost.com is there not only because I live in the area, but because I refer to it as a reliable source of news coverage for national and world issues, and of course U.S. politics. If you look around, there are not many good, reliable, daily news sources out there. Most other city newspapers provide subpar coverage of world and national events. Daily television news is mostly a joke, although I give the NewsHour and BBC some credit. The NYT.com is the one most obvious example, but I don't want to rely on a single source of news (we know where that path leads us).

I don't want to see the the Post cut its coverage in any areas of news. I don't agree with the idea of dropping non-exclusive coverage. Although it seems counter-intuitive to reading news online, I don't want to have to search around for different sources. I do want to be able to find it all on the site that I go to for news.

I agree that what I see online, I should also see in the print edition. Besides this, the problem with the Post online is that it's not designed for perusing. There should be a new format for the Post, that makes the online edition more easily browsed (see NYT.com), akin to a print newspaper. Keep the quality and the content, but make it more accessible.
I thought I'd be hostile to your evaluation cause I'm one of those wizened Post lovers you wind up in the article. But I'm find myself agreeing with point after point. My only quibble, instead of folding the Post Magazine, fold it into the new daily Style publication you suggest. I'd love the handout, and I'm sure as entertainment it could pay for itself out of ad revenue. I'd also love to not have those piles of newsprint you mentioned piling up. So reforming the Post isn't just good for the advertisers, the readers, and the revenue stream; it's good for the Earth. And we know how Liberal post readers are...

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